Apr 26 - The Spanish Election Debates

By Mark Montegriffo

Spain heads to the polls this Sunday after two debates on national television. Held under the shadow of the rise of Vox, the absence of the far-right party brought back the question that establishment media have been wrestling with since UKIP and Trump: do we include the far-right and expose their views to voters but run the risk of integrating their views into the acceptable mainstream; or do we repudiate them on the basis that their rhetoric is counter to democracy itself? The prior didn’t work so well in America or the UK (or Hungary and Brazil). As far-right online personality Sargon of Akkad comes to campaign in Gibraltar, this principle comes even closer to home. In the case of Vox, the lack of parliamentary representation was a fortunate excuse to largely ignore this existential problem for liberal democracy. On Sunday, we shall see whether Spain succumbs to the Trump and Brexit effect.

Both debates were held without a live studio audience, with the four leaders stood behind a podium and armed with gimmicky graphs, photos, and party propaganda. That being said, there were some similarities with the election debates we have in Gibraltar, in terms of quality and presentation.

Firstly, the men – every party leader on the stage was male. This, while not surprising, is something we are very familiar with in Gibraltar, and might only change this election year with Together Gibraltar’s presence.

The suits were also prominent, with three quarters of the panel resembling the demeanour of a senior partner or a real estate agent. It made the whole affair look unnatural, and coupled with the gimmicky A4s that were raised from time to time, made you think you might’ve been watching some sort of weird post-modern advertisement. It was like a self-satirical farce.

Finally, the debates took a familiar form to the Gibraltar equivalents in so far as the emphasis on personal attacks over policy-based arguments. This was expected, mostly with Ciudadanos and Partido Popular attacking the PSOE for somehow being weak on separatists.

The only exception was Pablo Iglesias from Unidas Podemos. On immigration, euthanasia and abortion, housing, taxes, consent and domestic violence, education, foreign policy and Catalonia – Iglesias gave his analysis and party position clearly. It was an obvious strategy but it worked well. Not only did he dress differently, with his signature ponytail and ‘camarero’ attire, but he acted in complete contrast to the individuals either side of him. In both debates he was succinct and wasted no time denigrating personalities on stage. He was able to portray a very commonly held perception that all of the leaders are the same status quo of nationalism and neo-liberal capitalism. They all have no substantive answers to the political stagnation since the financial crash, the deshaucios, the last decade of austerity, and the separatist fractures in Spain. The ideological and policy-focused angle from Iglesias was not just different to what we’re used to in Gibraltar, but is also in stark contrast to the tribal dogmatism that has been part of Spanish politics for a long time too.

Gibraltar remains irrelevant as ever in terms of the mainstream national debate this week and leading into the vote on Sunday. Regardless, a replication of the Andalucia results would probably be the worst case scenario as things stand. Ciudadanos and PP have both been campaigning to the right of what they might have initially considered, reacting to the momentum around Vox on the far-right. Instead of making a committed effort to play to the centre, they saw more value in appealing to the culturally conservative base in Spain. This has left Sanchez’s PSOE to assume a moderate ground, and according to the polls, it looks like it will just about pay off as his party is hitting the high 20s in terms of percentage points. PP, Ciudadanos, Unidas Podemos, and Vox, are all stuck in the teens.

The death of the two party system is now beyond question as far as Spain is concerned and, to compare again to Gibraltar, this election year could see a credible challenge to our duopoly too. At a time when analysts are debating the merits of two party frameworks like that of America versus the multi-polar coalition systems of Western Europe, this Spanish election will be an interesting case study in the discussion of the survival of 21st century democracy – ironic, of course, given that Spain’s democracy is among the youngest.